The Rabbi And The Sheikh

Within Jewish tradition there are sources that express not just tolerance toward aspects of Muslim religiosity, but intellectual and religious respect and admiration. It is important to become acquainted with these sources, and to consider their implications. Here I consider one such source, found in the writings of R. Yiṣḥaq Farḥi of Jerusalem (1782-1853).

R. Yiṣḥaq Farḥi was born in Safed in 1782 and soon after that moved to Jerusalem with his father Shelomo. He was known for being an extremely talented preacher, a vocation he inherited from his father. After his father died, R. Yiṣḥaq was adopted by the Rishon leṢiyyon (chief rabbi) of Jerusalem, R. Yom-Ṭoḇ Algazi (1727-1802) who declared:

“You shall fill your father’s place, you will walk in his path; you should hold onto your father’s deeds and follow his attributes. And you shall do as he did, preaching and educating the people.”

In addition to his activity as a preacher, R. Farḥi was later appointed as a judge in the court of Rishon leṢiyyon R. Abraham Ḥayyim Gaguin (1787-1848), was active in the public spheres of charity and welfare and was one of the heads of the Tiferet Israel Yeshiva, the main institution through which funds from the diaspora were channeled to Jerusalem’s scholars and poor.

His deep involvement in public life did not prevent R. Farḥi from composing many books. Some of them are organized by topic and belong to the literary genre of religious-ethical literature (musar). Others are collections of sermons, and still others are formulated as commentary on traditional texts. All are devoted to guiding the reader to improve and refine one’s moral and religious life.

One of these books is Matoq miDeḇash (“Sweeter than Honey”), first published in Jerusalem in 1842. The book is written in a clear and flowing Hebrew with a rhetorical style characteristic of a speech made before a live audience, and thus reflects R. Farḥi’s activities as a public teacher. The book is primarily structured as an explication of the religious values that should be derived from the Ten Commandments.

The fifth chapter of the book focuses on the third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”. Its literary character sets it out from the rest of the book, as it conveys its religious message by telling a story, that R. Farḥi introduces with the words: “And let me tell you something that I heard.” The story is not presented as a tale or a fable, but rather as anchored historically in a quite specific context; its title is: “An Awesome Tale that Took Place in the City of Damascus in the Time of R. Moshe Galante of Blessed Memory.” R. Moshe Galante was Chief Rabbi of Damascus from 1781 until his death in 1806. Thus, R. Yiṣḥaq Farḥi is providing very specific boundaries of place and time for the events described in the “awesome tale”: they took place in the city of Damascus, within a 25–year time period towards the end of the eighteenth century – when R. Farḥi himself was growing up in Jerusalem.

R. Farḥi tells his readers of a relationship between two outstanding men in late 18th century Damascus: a great Sufi sheikh and the Chief Rabbi of Damascus, whom Farḥi characterizes as the greatest scholar of his generation.

One of the two heroes of Farḥi’s tale, the Sufi sheikh, attained great mastery of the Seven Wisdoms, i.e., the realm of universal human knowledge. Since a person’s perfection is contingent upon mastery of these wisdoms, the sheikh was more perfect than all the Jews of his generation, with the exception of R. Galante, who was his equal and even slightly his superior in the realm of universal wisdom.

It was the sheikh who guided the rabbi along the paths of mystical experience, by way of the garden and the pool, until their joint entry into the Holy of Holies

Zvi Zohar


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